Go to Sleep With a Toaster, Wake Up With a Microwave

IN THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT, THE SUN will come up every morning, the earth will remain solid beneath our feet, and when we push, say, the "Menu" buttons on our VCRs, the same choices will appear today as they did yesterday, and as they will tomorrow. That's because "firmware" -- the software that gives modern electronic devices their personality and operating instructions -- is hard-coded into a ROM or EPROM chip, which can't be changed. Right?

Well, that's not always true anymore.

With the advent of advanced erasable, reprogrammable memory chips, such as EEPROMs, flash-RAMs and even computer hard drives, which can receive instructions over a phone line or satellite antenna, "firmware" isn't "firm" anymore. It's now possible for the manufacturer to download new software into your device -- fixing a bug, adding a new feature or even changing its function. This isn't science fiction. It's going on right now, perhaps in your own home, even as you're reading this article. It happened to me just last night.

I was confused and worried when, at 3 a.m., my TiVo seemingly crashed and wouldn't restart for several minutes. TiVo, you may recall, is the newest "must have" television accessory: an alternative to the VCR that allows you to point-and-click shows you'd like to tape, and to begin watching shows at any point, as they are recording.

When my TiVo returned to the land of the living, I discovered that its scan function had been upgraded; while scrolling forward or backward through recorded video, TiVo now simulated a "smooth" scan instead of jumping from image to image. Also, a menu option had been added to prevent the overwriting of old recordings with new ones -- essential for using TiVo while on vacation.

The menu change could have led to some confusion, as the button sequence to program recordings had changed. But on the whole, very nice improvements. In fact, the ability to receive remote software updates is one of the selling points of TiVo and its competitor, ReplayTV. Sure, you may be getting in on the ground floor and buying the first generation of these devices, but you won't be stuck with what you buy. Every time the manufacturer adds new features, you get them automatically over your phone line! Call it planned non-obsolescence.

Here's how it works: Because massive computing power is now cheaper than switches, gears, relays and hard-wired logic circuitry, even the simplest functions in everyday electronic devices are now controlled by a mind-boggling complexity of computer programming. Overseeing and coordinating these functions is an electronic micro-brain, a miniaturized computer called a micro-controller. If the micro-controller, or its software, weren't there, most modern devices wouldn't turn on, much less serve any purpose. ã

When a manufacturer develops improved software -- e.g., your computer program evolving from "version 1.0" to "version 2.5" -- you generally have to load a disc or download a file to get it. But in the case of some of the new devices, computer data is accessed automatically. DirecTV's satellite dish receives a constant stream of program listings. TiVo or ReplayTVs are connected to phone lines, which dial up the home office every night to retrieve program listings. When the connection is up, the manufacturer automatically sends new software over its channel: the satellite signal, the phone line or even over the air (think pager, cellular phone, car radio). And presto: You go to sleep with a toaster and wake up with a microwave.

Okay, the transition isn't likely to be that radical. We can only hope that most manufacturers' changes are improvements, and that they don't introduce any bugs (though the history of computer-software upgrades suggests that neither of these outcomes is assured). But what if the manufacturer decided to deliberately disable or destroy your device? This is not only possible, it has already happened. In the late 1980s, General Instrument Corp. (G.I.) responded to widespread piracy of its satellite television descrambler VideoCipher by "turning off" a large number of the devices. Consumer profiling was used to select which customers were most likely to have "hacked" their descramblers to get free channels. Example: Customers who bought a $3,500 satellite system but had only subscribed to CNN were deemed suspect.

Many buyers felt that because they had purchased their VideoCipher boxes outright (and were not renting them like cable boxes), they had the right to do what they pleased to the insides. G.I., and the broadcasters whose signals they were protecting, like HBO, disagreed. But along with the pirates, thousands of law-abiding box owners were abruptly cut off by G.I.'s "electronic countermeasures." The damning evidence that G.I.'s profiling had snagged innocent consumers came when a vice president of HBO announced that his personal VideoCipher had been turned off! And G.I. was not exactly cooperative in rectifying the problem, insisting, at first, that customers return their VideoCiphers to G.I. for time-consuming and expensive repairs.

The whole flap brings to mind other questions: Could computer hackers hit your self-updating home appliances with a "virus"? Probably not, since these devices can receive data only along a designated path controlled by the manufacturer. But the latest devices with two-way communications, such as TiVo, ReplayTV and the newest generation of digital cable boxes, present a new issue: Not only can the manufacturer transmit instructions to your box, but your box can send data back. Your TiVo, DSS or digital cable box can, in theory, tell the manufacturer and his clients which channels you're watching, when you tune in and whether you're skipping the commercials. Similarly, while the phone company already has a list of the numbers you call, in theory, the manufacturer of your telephone could now get that list, too!

Fortunately, TiVo and Replay have both promised not to make book on your personal habits, and a mail-in coupon is provided if you want to keep your information out of TiVo's aggregate data files as well. But then again, George Bush promised not to raise taxes. Perhaps George Orwell's 1984 has finally arrived, 15 years late . . .